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on Broken Mugs, and on Drying Tears

Posted on Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Today has been one of those days, and it's only ten o'clock.

This morning, like every morning this week and last, I pulled myself out of bed early to study. In the midst of exams, and thanks to my inability to do work at nighttime, the mornings have been mine. Productive, quiet, in solitude but not feeling too alone. My morning doing work has been the same for years, since I first discovered I was a morning person years ago. I take my time waking up, but when I do I make tea or coffee and pour it into a mug, bringing it into the living room to start the day.

The mug is a great one; big enough to hold the whole contents of my Moka cafetière, big enough to keep the heat in for ages. Its sides are not too thin, not too thick. It's really the perfect mug. Or, rather, it was. Because this morning, after having finished my coffee and wanting a break from studying, I walked to the kitchen in my pink bathrobe (to tell the truth I also had a pink blanket wrapped around me like a beautiful maxi-skirt, for a bit of extra morning glamour). I turned on the light, crossed the doorway, and promptly let the sleeve of my robe get stuck on the handle, somehow jerking my empty mug from my hand and projecting it onto the hard tile floor. The rational response probably would have been to sop up the dregs of coffee that were now on the floor, carefully sweep the shards away, and continue with my studying. Instead, I burst into big fat tears, covering my eyes so that I wouldn't have to see my very favorite mug of all time, no more. Ugly tears, loud tears, echoing down the long hallway of the empty apartment.


I know, I know. It's so stupid. I felt stupid at the time, I feel stupid now, I will feel stupid later. But let me explain a bit more, maybe you'll judge me a tiny bit less.

My town got a Starbucks years ago. It replaced a family-run pharmacy which was a bit of a sore spot for a while, until we all forgot Hyatt's and happily let our caffeine-riddled brains take us to Starbucks. It became THE place to be, the weekend activity for the junior high crowd was "GOING TO STARBUCKS(!!!)". During the week, it was the place to covertly meet my high school boyfriend after we both got out of school. Both in our uniforms, we sat on the comfy velvety armchairs in the window and hoped our parents wouldn't drive by and spot our cars, as we'd both invented other places that we supposedly were. On weekends, it was a spot to meet friends to "do homework"; to ignore physics equations and skim the pages of Grendel over sugary lattes and, later, in moments of pre-prom cliché, skinny lattes. The smell of that place stayed on your clothes, it still does.

When I moved to Villanova, I bought a mug in that little Starbucks, a white mug with tall sides and a green logo on the front. I didn't know why, at the time. I don't particularly love the coffee at Starbucks. Something about that mug, though, appealed to me, and I suddenly felt frantic to have a memory of the little spot on the corner on Yardley's main street.

My first semester, I used it all the time. For microwaved tea, using teabags my family had brought back from Ireland. For instant coffee, for Vladimir vodka, for Brita-filtered water the next morning, for ramen noodles. Then, I broke it. It shattered on the floor of Stanford Hall, room 523, during the second semester of my freshman year. I felt a twinge in my heart, almost a tear in my eye, but quickly recovered and bought a new one.

The new mug was the same. Exactly the same. Same sides, same perfectly sized handle, same same same. I used it sophomore year in the quad, bringing it to the dining hall next door sometimes just because.  Junior year, I used it as I worked in the quiet mornings in our Moulden apartment, coffee from our very fancy Keurig-type machine or from the cafetière that later would explode and make a mess all over that little kitchen. I used it senior year, on the back porch of the Crack Spot on warm mornings, at the table in the weird in-between room doing homework, in my bedroom with tea stolen from the on-campus dining hall. It spilled on the carpet, it spilled on my desk, it spilled on the extremely discounted tablecloth covering our little round table. 

I brought it home after college and stocked it carefully in our kitchen cabinet, much to my parents' chagrin. My dad called it a "bucket", and it's true that it towered over our other little mugs; the Ireland world cup commemorative mug, my mum's always-reliable Hot Babe mug by Jamie Oliver, the slim faux porcelain mugs with cheesy pictures of Michelangelo's David that Dad bought in a dollar store somewhere and always insists on using, my big sister's Milkboy Bryn Mawr mug, and my little sister's inexplicable favorite: a garish Paris souvenir shop mug. When I moved to France at the end of that summer, I knew I'd be taking that mug with me. And so I did, carefully wrapping it in a scarf in my big red suitcase, the last item to go in and one of the first to come out.

Four years after buying it at the Yardley Starbucks, on a quiet street in the 7th arondissement of Paris, I unpacked my mug. My first apartment was tiny, only 105 square feet, and the mug was so out of place. In the cabinets were little espresso cups and small empty Nutella jars used as glasses, but I didn't care. If the mug was grossly "American" in comparison, that was okay with me. The first night alone in that tiny little apartment, in this country all by myself, I had a cup of Irish tea from the mug and felt a little comfort of the other homes I'd known, in my new one. When I moved, a year later, to my new and oh-so-improved apartment, I stuffed the mug in a big sock, throwing it in a box on top of some books and carefully loading it into the backseat of a friend's SmartCar, which would be driving me and all my possessions to my new chez moi.

Here, it fit into the cabinet among ash trays and tea bowls from Normandie with names printed on the front, ludicrously looming over every other item that my French roommate and her family had carefully stocked. She thought it was funny, had never seen a mug that looked just like a Starbucks cup. I'd kind of forgotten that that was its design, and thought for the first time that it was a bit of a weird thing to own, not being a fanatic of the café.

When I took up running last year, the mug became part of that ritual, too. I'd go out in the morning for my run, and come back to set my Moka on the stovetop while I hopped in the shower. Five minutes later, out of the too-short shower (anything for a longer lie-in!), I padded into the kitchen leaving watery footprints behind me. I poured the milk in first, then the coffee, then took the mug with me to my room as I got dressed. It would often sit on my desk, the last quarter of the coffee unfinished and cold, as I worked all day, staining the sides with rings that never quite came off. At night, I'd make chai tea from Marks and Spencer with soy milk and honey, glad that I was able to have an EXTRA big cup in my mug.

Which brings us to here, to today, to the last day in the last routine that my mug was part of. All throughout this new masters program, during moments of teary frustration or joyful victory, I've been sipping coffee from this mug. Until today.

Today, there are a lot of far more important and earth-shaking things to cry about. The mood here in France is so heavy, I'm frightened walking home alone in a way I've never felt before. Bags are checked at the entrance to every building at my university, and even in some shops. Police officers with AK-47s stand guard outside synagogues. Every siren fills my stomach with dread, and if a lone siren is followed by others, the dread multiplies each time. This is a feeling I can tell is shared, by the tense looks exchanged as the wailing grows louder.

The times are grim and the future feels extremely uncertain. Abroad, there are losses of life much larger than the Charlie Hebdo massacre seven days ago, without doubt. Somehow, though, this attack has left France feeling shaken in a way that I could never have predicted. Charlie Hebdo is just so French. It captures the heart of so much of French culture, of French life, of the French psychology. Perhaps that is why it feels so extremely personal, so hard to swallow, so senseless.


This morning, at half past six, before starting my work I slipped out into the dark street and headed to the end of it, to the newspaper kiosk to buy a copy or two of Charlie Hebdo. When I arrived, I heard the vendor telling the few people in front of me that it was sold out, that we shouldn't bother looking, it was sold out everywhere. "He must be mistaken," I thought. The newspaper printed fifty times its usual number, three million copies in France... Surely, before 7am on a sleepy Wednesday, I'd find a copy. I tried another kiosk, and was told the same thing. People everywhere were being turned away, being told they were too late, that the copies were long gone. It's staggering to think that hundreds of thousands of copies (not all three million were on sale today, they'll be distributed all week) were grabbed up before most people were awake. Maybe it's a sign of how desperately we're all looking for something to hold on to, some proof that things will be rebuilt, that Charlie Hebdo and freedom of the press will go on.

I know that France will rebuild; if this country knows how to do anything (and it knows how to do a lot of things), it certainly knows how to rebuild. It's a country that has defended its liberties throughout the ages, long before Charlie Hebdo was founded. I know that France will recover, but it will take a while for the darkness to lift. The shadow that has fallen over the country is a heavy one. What's certain, thankfully, is that the sun will shine again, over picnics and cold rosé and cigarette smoke rising over laughter from café terrasses.

Not today, though. Not for a while.

On a much smaller scale, too, there are other things that are weighing heavily on me at the minute. Coming back to Paris after being home is never an easy transition, but this year it feels especially tough for many reasons. It's no fun boarding a plane and leaving behind so much of my heart only to face a week of exams for which I feel entirely underprepared. 

The mug, though. The mug. With all the big things happening, my heart still sinks when I see its sad broken side. I still feel stupid, I still feel childish, but I am so sad that it's gone. That mug was one of my favorite things. It has been with me in so many places, geographically and otherwise. It's been a constant when things have been in flux, over and over. I'm not going to cry about it anymore, but I'm going to miss it very much. When I replace it, it won't be the same. I think, though, the best thing to do is to think about all the new places I'll bring its replacement, to imagine all the mornings to come and to wonder where I'll be.

Because all we can really do sometimes is dry our tears, or more importantly still, dry each other's tears, and try to move forward. There's no other place to go. xx

1 Comment

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Caroline Brennan said...

Excellent Niamh, there is a book in you coming soon. Keep on blogging.